Freedom For Ideas

Sharing ideas, concepts and thoughts, mainly about Information Technology – and consulting

The Vietnam Syndrome

Posted by Yannick Martel on October 5, 2008

This was used in Vietnam to help you get out of hell

She was used in Vietnam to help get you out of hell!

Fighter pilot Ed Rasimus mentions in Palace Cobra that during his second tour in Vietnam in 1966 the US Air Force was a much more efficient organisation than during his first tour in 1972. This was the same war, but as it persisted, methods and practices where developed and implemented to more efficiently and reliably incorporate new arrivals, maintain planes, program missions, route pilots to refueling, direct them to bombing their targets and then get them back. They were able to operate smoothly with larger groups – in one word, they were more industrial. Was it enough to win the war? Not really. Did they achieve their strategic objectives? Not clear. Ed Rasimus even suggests that their very efficiency might be a symptom that the Air Force did not achieve their objectives – they just stayed and did their job, incrementally better, learning and improving, but it did not change the outcome of the war.

Let’s say it again: their very efficiency might have been a sign that they had been doing the same job for too long without any significant result. Of course, it had nothing to do with the guys who were actually in the war. They did better over time and achieved local, tactical success. Ed Rasimus instead condemns the way most of the war was managed, with no real intention of achieving a strong and rapid victory and with very bad understanding of the realities of war by decision-makers.

On reading “Palace Cobra”, I wondered if this could not apply to other situations. If I find a process which is very complex, smooth and well-established, it might mean that it does not really address the root of the problem – else it would have already solved it.

Recently, I found myself interacting with a very large IT organization. There, many years ago, the proliferation of releases, patches and applications lead to a nightmare of side-effects, non compatibilities and nasty disruptions. They decided to set up a mechanism of synchronization, forcing all major releases of applications to go together, with a strong project management organisation for coordinating them and performing qualification in sync. They have been doing it better and better over the years, and now it looks to me like an impressive war machine, very industrial and repeatable. On the other hand, they have made their release process very rigid and increased the time to market of new features and offers.

Is that a case of the “Vietnam Syndrome”? They addressed the problem at hand, which was solving the release nightmare. They kept going on and improving this solution. They kept bombing at the same place – but was it really the right target to bomb? Have they won the war? Maybe not, as they are still doing it. Clearly they have done right in solving their short-term crisis by strongly synchronising releases. Should they have done more than industrialising the approach? I am not sure, maybe address the issue of dependency between applications. Maybe something else. Then they might have won the war, or at least fought it on a strategic scale.

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